In a scene from the classic film A Christmas Story (1983), the arrival of a lamp in the shape of a woman's leg throws the Parker home into discord. Young Ralphie (Peter Billingsley) can't keep his eyes (or his hands) off the thing; his mother (Melinda Dillion) looks on in pure horror. She can't stop her husband (Darren McGavin) from displaying his “major award” in their front window, but she knows just how to divert her son's attention elsewhere. All she has to do is remind him that he's missing his “favorite radio program,” Little Orphan Annie.
Ralphie immediately plops himself down and stares up at the family radio the way later generations would gaze unblinkingly at the TV. “Only one thing in the world could've dragged me away from the soft glow of electric sex gleaming in the window,” Ralphie's older self, voiced by the humorist Jean Shepherd (upon whose book the movie is based), says in narration.
This scene perfectly captures the powerful hold that radio in general, and Little Orphan Annie in particular, had on young minds in the 1930s and 1940s, when A Christmas Story is set. The exploits of the redheaded comic-strip heroine and her dog Sandy—who battled gangsters, pirates, and other scoundrels on air from 1931 to 1942—had a surprisingly wide listenership. “All people during that period, budding delinquents, safecrackers, stock market manipulators, or whatever, listened to Little Orphan Annie,” wrote Richard Gehman in the Saturday Review in 1969.
Because radio’s “theater of the mind” requires a fertile imagination, it has always had a special appeal for children. The same lively imagination Ralphie uses to picture himself defending his family with a Red Ryder BB gun, or reduced to a blind beggar by the effects of Lifebuoy soap, brought Annie's adventures to life more vividly than a television ever could.
This imaginative power is precisely why some parents and reformers saw the radio in much the same way Ralphie's mother saw the leg lamp: as a seductive villain, sneaking into their homes to harm the minds and corrupt the morals of their children. They saw the intense excitement Annie and other shows inspired in children and quickly concluded that such excitement was dangerous and unhealthy. One father, in a letter to The New York Times in 1933, described the effects on his child of the “all-too-hair-raising adventures” broadcast during radio’s “Children’s Hours.” “My son has never known fear,” he wrote. “He now imagines footsteps in the dark, kidnappers lurking in every corner and ghosts appearing and disappearing everywhere and emitting their blood-curdling noises, all in true radio fashion.”
Many claims about the harm allegedly caused by violent video games, movies, and other media today—that they turn kids into violent criminals, rob them of sleep, and wreak havoc with their nervous systems—were lobbed just as strongly at radio in the 1930s. “These broadcasts are dealing exclusively with mystery and murder,” wrote a Brooklyn mother to the Times in 1935. “They result in an unhealthy excitement, unnecessary nervousness, irritability and restless sleep.”
The year before, noted educator Sidonie Gruenberg told the Times “that children pick as favorites the very programs which parents as a whole view with special concern—the thriller, the mystery, the low comedy and the melodramatic adventure.” She asked, rhetorically: “Why is it that the children seem to get their greatest pleasure from the very things which the parents most deplore?”
Among the programs most adored by kids but deplored by parents was Ralphie’s favorite: Little Orphan Annie. In March 1933, Time reported that a group of concerned mothers in Scarsdale, New York, got together to protest radio shows that “shatter nerves, stimulate emotions of horror, and teach bad grammar.” They singled out Little Orphan Annie as “Very Poor,” because of the protagonist’s “bad emotional effect and unnatural voice.” That same year, wrote H. B. Summers in his 1939 book Radio Censorship, “a Minneapolis branch of the American Association of University Women, and the Board of Managers of the Iowa Congress of Parents and Teachers adopted resolutions condemning the ‘unnatural overstimulation and thrill’ of children’s serials—principally the ‘Orphan Annie’ and ‘Skippy’ serials.” (Skippy was based on a comic strip about a “streetwise” city boy that served as a major influence on Charles Schulz’s Peanuts.)
These days, when Annie is known mainly as the little girl who sang brightly about “Tomorrow,” it may be hard to picture her radio series as the Grand Theft Auto of its day. But the radio show had a much closer relationship to its source material—a “frequently downbeat, even grim comic” created in 1924 by Harold Gray—than the relentlessly optimistic (and very loosely adapted) Broadway musical. The comic-strip Annie’s most defining and admired trait—her self-reliance—came from the fact that she existed in “a comfortless world, vaguely sinister,” surrounded by violence, where few could be trusted and no one could be counted on. “Annie is tougher than hell, with a heart of gold and a fast left, who can take care of herself because she has to,” Gray once explained. “She’s controversial, there’s no question about that. But I keep her on the side of motherhood, honesty, and decency.”
The radio series softened some of the strip’s sharp edges, most especially by dropping its virulently anti-Roosevelt politics. But the unceasing undercurrent of danger remained, heightened by the cliffhanger at the end of each episode. Those cliffhangers were key to the show’s success—and the element that most disturbed parents. Frank Dahm, who wrote the scripts for the series, discovered this very quickly after having Annie kidnapped at the end of one early episode. “The announcer had scarcely had time to sign off the program when the telephones began to ring,” Dahm told Radio Guide in 1935. “Frantic mothers unable to pacify their children all but blasphemed me for so jeopardizing their favorite.” Dahm dutifully put kidnapping on the list of the show’s “mustn’ts,” which soon grew to include other plot points that drew complaints.
The producers of Little Orphan Annie had to walk a very fine line, indulging their audience’s appetite for thrills while not offending adults. The adults, after all, held the purchasing power. The companies that sponsored Annie and other shows aimed at children knew, as Francis Chase, Jr., observed in his 1942 book Sound and Fury, that “kids love action. … And because kids like murder and excitement, such programs proved good merchandising mechanisms.” Annie, as A Christmas Story accurately depicted, was sponsored by “rich, chocolaty Ovaltine”—a malted powder added to milk. As much as a third of every fifteen-minute episode was devoted to having the announcer sing Ovaltine’s praises, telling kids it would give them added “pep” and imploring them to “do a favor” for Annie and tell their mothers about it.
Such advertising, as psychologists Hadley Cantril and Gordon Allport noted in their 1935 book The Psychology of Radio, was devilishly effective. They wrote about a 7-year-old boy named Andrew, whose favorite radio show (unnamed, but with a “little heroine” who is almost certainly Annie) was sponsored by “chocolate flavoring to be added to milk” (unquestionably Ovaltine). Andrew “insists that his mother buy it,” even after his mother reads up on the product and discovers that it has “no significant advantage over cocoa prepared with milk in the home” and isn’t worth the price. “In vain does she suggest that Andrew derive his pep from ordinary cocoa, or at least from one of the less expensive preparations,” write Cantril and Allport. “Andrew wins his point by refusing to drink milk at all without the costly addition!”
Ovaltine had another marketing strategy that was even more effective—the giveaway. Week after week, Annie announcer Pierre André instructed kids to send in a dime “wrapped in a metal foil seal from under the lid of a can of Ovaltine” so they could get the latest in a series of premiums: mugs, buttons, booklets, badges, masks, and on and on. Many other radio shows offered “free” items in exchange for wrappers or box tops, but, as Bruce Smith observed in his History of Little Orphan Annie, Ovaltine gave away more items than anyone else.
By far the most coveted item Ovaltine had to offer were the “secret decoder pins” awarded to members of “Annie’s Secret Circle,” so they could decipher the “secret message” read at the end of each episode. In A Christmas Story, Ralphie acquires one such pin after “weeks of drinking gallons of Ovaltine,” and memorably uses it to decipher a message reminding him to “BE SURE TO DRINK YOUR OVALTINE.” In real life, such messages were never so blatantly commercial. Brief references to the plot of next week’s show, such as “S-E-N-D H-E-L-P” or “S-A-N-D-Y I-S S-A-F-E,” were more typical. But Ralphie’s fervent desire for a decoder pin, and his excitement (admittedly short-lived) at finally being a member of the “Secret Circle,” is absolutely true to life.
Many parents resented having to battle their children over the grocery list week after week, as a growing list of giveaways threatened to break the bank. (“If a weak-willed mother should buy all these prize ‘box tops,’” wrote News-Week in December 1934, “her grocery budget…would swell at least $2 a week”—or about $35.50 today.) But they also knew that the show’s dependence on its advertiser gave them leverage. By threatening to boycott Ovaltine, or any company that sponsored a show they found objectionable, they could (and did) influence its content. Broadcasters listened to these complaints and tightened their standards for children’s programming.
By the end of the 1930s, Annie’s cliffhangers had been toned down, and this may have hastened its end. Ovaltine stopped sponsoring the show in 1940, and the series went off the air not long after—making Ralphie, who uses a decoder ring clearly marked “1940,” one of the last members of the “Secret Circle.” The cultural winds had shifted; in the early 1940s, writes Chase, parents clearly stated their preference for more “educational” children’s programming. But the style of advertising used on Annie remained, and—despite the occasional controversy every now and then—has never gone away.
There’s a certain irony here. Ralphie’s trusty decoder pin teaches him an important lesson—one that his “Old Man,” delighted at receiving his “major award” of a leg lamp, apparently never learned. Holed up in the family bathroom, Ralphie discovers that the “message from Annie herself” is nothing but “a crummy commercial”—an ad for the very stuff he had to drink by the gallon in order to get the decoder pin in the first place. “I went out to face the world again—wiser,” he says in narration. He’s learned a thing or two about the rules of commerce, and about the true cost of a “free” giveaway.
What could be more educational than that?